This morning’s e-Jewish Philanthropy features a post by Bob Goldfarb, president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity. Goldfarb argues that culture–art, theater, music–needs to play a more central role in the Jewish Agency’s new agenda of identity-building, and that culture can, for instance, reinforce the emotional transformations that occur on Birthright trips.

The Jewish Agency’s new strategy “rests on three pillars,” he writes: “connections through Israel experiences, positioning educators and leaders as change agents, and promoting social action. The last two appeal to the rational mind, using knowledge and concrete results to awaken a sense of Jewishness. Israel experiences may also involve education and social action, but they offer something more: an intangible, emotional, and sometimes inexpressible response by the participants to the people and the land. That can be literally life-changing, and it can’t be routinized through curricula and training programs.”

I agree with all of this, except for a key piece: Goldfarb seems to assume that education is a purely rational exercise, and that curriculum is its centerpiece. I have to imagine that he, like many others, thinks of good education much more broadly than this. Good Jewish education happens when learners are open to learning, and when good educators enable them to interpret their lives in the language of the Jewish people. It cannot be reduced to curriculum or programs, and it is certainly not a solely rational activity. Good educators know that good education integrates rational and emotional, cognitive and affective.

Last week I co-chaired a conference entitled Toward a Third Space: A New Dimension in Jewish Education for Emerging Adults. Convened by Hillel and funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation, the conference brought together 130 leading educators, professionals and funders to reflect on and build a field around teaching Torah to emerging adults (defined by social psychologist Jeffrey Arnett as adults ages 18-30). The term ‘Third Space’ is borrowed from sociology, where it refers to physical places that are neither work nor  home, but common spaces or ‘great good places.’ For our purposes, as elaborated by my conference co-chair Rabbi Dan Smokler, it refers to a conceptual space of learning Torah, one that is not wholly defined by either the supposed objectivity of the academy, nor the perceived dogmas of the yeshiva, but is rather animated by a different set of assumptions that are both intellectually honest and meaningful in individual, subjective terms.

To take a very traditional example, here is a story: Years ago I was visiting relatives for Shabbat. We went to services at the local Young Israel synagogue. The rabbi had broken his leg, and this was his first week back on his feet after his rehabilitation. I vividly remember his remark: “My whole life I never fully appreciated the blessing we say every morning, praising God as the one who ‘makes firm the steps of man.’ But now that I have experienced the inability to walk, I have a new understanding of this blessing.”

The lesson is simple: We often only gain a full appreciation of a text when we experience its meaning outside of our minds. And by the same token, text is a well of meaning to understand our lives.

While the rabbi and the context were not necessarily an example of Third Space (which we assume is working with college-educated Jews who are shaped by the values of the university), it is a reminder that teaching Torah and making meaning are not purely cognitive exercises. Good education is transformational, a series of encounters between individual, community, text and context. Good educators–exemplified by many of the people at Third Space–make that transformation possible. In our teaching, text is dynamic: it lives in dialogue with art, music, theater; as my gifted colleague Rabbi Miriam Margles demonstrated so ably at the conference, and as illustrated in the rabbi’s story above, it is embodied.

In the kind of teaching we do, the encounter of learner and Torah is not limited to the rational, but encompasses a fuller, richer range of human experience. That is one of the things that makes this kind of teaching–which is of course not limited to, but is particularly effective with, emerging adults–so important and so powerful.

So I agree with Bob Goldfarb that the Jewish Agency, and the Jewish People, need to embrace all the modalities of human flourishing if we are to be successful in connecting younger Jews with the Jewish People. At the center of those modalities, however, is Torah–broadly defined, expertly taught. Our people is blessed with both its greatest treasure–Torah–and with a generation of educators who are finding new and fuller ways to help us individually and collectively engage with it. As we all work towards a future of greater engagement with Israel and the Jewish people, this kind of transformational education needs to be front and center.

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